What happens to your body when you smoke tobacco


People cite many reasons for using tobacco, including pleasure, improved performance and vigilance, relief from depression, curbing hunger, and weight control. But at what cost?

Tobacco is an addictive substance because it contains the chemical nicotine. Like heroin or cocaine, nicotine changes the way your brain works and causes you to crave more and more nicotine. This addiction to nicotine is what makes it so difficult to quit smoking. Although the primary addicting substance in smoking is nicotine, cigarette smoke contains thousands of other chemicals that can also damage health. When they burn, they generate more than 7,000 chemicals, many of which are poisonous and at least 70 of them cause cancer. Cigars have an even higher level of carcinogens, toxins and tar than cigarettes.

Tobacco smoke is enormously harmful to your health and there’s no safe way to smoke. Even secondhand smoke – or passive smoking – puts those around the smoker at great risk. Hazards include heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, peptic ulcer disease and stroke. Withdrawal symptoms often include anxiety, hunger, sleep disturbances and depression.

It is generally accepted that the global mortality rate for smokers is three times that of people who don’t light up in the first place, and smoking remains one of the leading causes of preventable death.

The good news on smoking

The message seems to be trickling through to New Zealanders about the dangers of smoking. No longer can we say we did not honestly know that smoking causes all these dreadful diseases. Everything is out in the open now and it is up to the individual to make an informed choice. We are now seeing an adult smoking rate at 18% – down from 25% in 1996/97.

There has also been a significant increase in the number of people who have never smoked. And less young people are taking up the habit. According to studies, those who light up before the age of 21 have the hardest time quitting.

Government intervention

Lung cancer is the biggest cause of cancer death in the world. Nations that have taken tobacco control seriously, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand,  Britain and the United States, are leading the way in dramatically reducing smoking rates.  The declining smoking figures reported by the Ministry of Health are likely the result of sustained tobacco control strategies.

SmokeFree 2025

In March 2011 the New Zealand Government committed to an aspirational goal of New Zealand becoming smoke free by 2025; a long-term goal of reducing smoking prevalence and tobacco availability to minimal levels. This was in response to the recommendations of a landmark Parliamentary inquiry by the Māori Affairs select committee.

According to the government, Smokefree 2025 will be achieved by:

  • protecting children from exposure to tobacco marketing and promotion
  • reducing the supply of, and demand for tobacco
  • providing the best possible support for quitting.

You can find out more about this initiative here.

Back to the scary stuff

The effects of smoking on the body cannot be dismissed. Here’s a brief rundown on key areas of the body that are adversely affected by tobacco.

Central Nervous System

One of the ingredients in tobacco is a mood-altering drug called nicotine. Nicotine reaches your brain in mere seconds. It’s a central nervous system stimulant, so it makes you feel more energized for a little while. As that effect subsides, you feel tired and crave more. Nicotine is habit forming. Smoking increases risk of macular degeneration, cataracts and poor eyesight. It can also weaken your sense of taste and sense of smell, so food may become less enjoyable. Your body has a stress hormone called corticosterone, which lowers the effects of nicotine. If you’re under a lot of stress, you’ll need more nicotine to get the same effect. Physical withdrawal from smoking can impair your cognitive functioning and make you feel anxious, irritated and depressed. Withdrawal can also cause headaches and sleep problems.

Respiratory System

When you inhale smoke, you’re taking in substances that can damage your lungs. Over time, your lungs lose their ability to filter harmful chemicals. Coughing can’t clear out the toxins sufficiently, so these toxins get trapped in the lungs. Smokers have a higher risk of respiratory infections, colds and flu. In a condition called emphysema, the air sacs in your lungs are destroyed. Emphysema is rare in non-smokers. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the tubes of the lungs becomes inflamed. Over time, smokers are at increased risk of developing these forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Long-term smokers are also at increased risk of lung cancer. Withdrawal from tobacco products can cause temporary congestion and respiratory pain as your lungs begin to clear out.

Children whose parents smoke are more prone to coughing, wheezing and asthma attacks than children whose parents don’t. They also tend to have more ear infections. Children of smokers have higher rates of pneumonia and bronchitis.

Cardiovascular System

Smoking damages your entire cardiovascular system. When nicotine hits your body, it gives your blood sugar a boost. After a short time, you’re left feeling tired and craving more. Nicotine causes blood vessels to tighten, which restricts the flow of blood (peripheral artery disease). Smoking lowers good cholesterol levels and raises blood pressure, which can result in stretching of the arteries and a buildup of bad cholesterol (atherosclerosis). Smoking raises the risk of forming blood clots. Blood clots and weakened blood vessels in the brain increase a smoker’s risk of stroke. Smokers who have heart bypass surgery are at increased risk of recurrent coronary heart disease. In the long term, smokers are at greater risk of blood cancer (leukemia). There’s a risk to non-smokers, too. Breathing secondhand smoke has an immediate effect on the cardiovascular system. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases your risk of stroke, heart attack and coronary heart disease.

Skin, Hair, and Nails (Integumentary System)

Some of the more obvious signs of smoking involve the skin. The substances in tobacco smoke actually change the structure of your skin. Smoking causes skin discoloration, wrinkles, and premature aging. Your fingernails and the skin on your fingers may have yellow staining from holding cigarettes. Smokers usually develop yellow or brown stains on their teeth. Hair holds on to the smell of tobacco long after you put your cigarette out. It even clings to non-smokers.

Digestive System

Smokers are at great risk of developing oral problems. Tobacco use can cause gum inflammation (gingivitis) or infection (periodontitis). These problems can lead to tooth decay, tooth loss and bad breath. Smoking also increases risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx and esophagus. Smokers have higher rates of kidney cancer and pancreatic cancer. Even cigar smokers who don’t inhale are at increased risk of mouth cancer. Smoking also has an effect on insulin, making it more likely that you’ll develop insulin resistance. That puts you at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. When it comes to diabetes, smokers tend to develop complications at a faster rate than non-smokers. Smoking also depresses appetite, so you may not be getting all the nutrients your body needs. Withdrawal from tobacco products can cause nausea.

Sexuality and Reproduction

System Restricted blood flow can pose a higher risk of infertility. Women who smoke may experience menopause at an earlier age than non-smoking women. Smoking increases a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. Smokers experience more complications of pregnancy, including miscarriage, problems with the placenta, and premature delivery. Pregnant mothers who are exposed to secondhand smoke are also more likely to have a baby with low birth weight. Babies born to mothers who smoke while pregnant are at greater risk of low birth weight, birth defects, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Newborns who breathe secondhand smoke suffer more ear infections and asthma attacks.

Help, I want to stub out

If you decide you really do want to extinguish your smoking habit, there is plenty of help available. A good place to start is by calling the Quitline on 0800 778 778, or go to the website http://www.quit.org.nz/

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